If anyone thought the Patriots would coast to the Super Bowl, reality set in on Saturday night when the Colts ended the Pats’ seven-game winning streak.
New England now finds itself in essentially a winner-take-all game against Buffalo next Sunday at Gillette Stadium for the division. But even then, a Week 18 trip to Miami’s Hard (House of Horrors) Stadium is looming with Brian Flores’ group riding a six-game winning streak.
Winning in the NFL isn’t easy. Practice preparation makes game reality. And December and January are where this group of Patriots will either cement themselves as the next generation or something closer to the 2019-20 Pats.
According to Patriots quarterback Mac Jones, New England’s practice execution and energy during the week indicated that the team was flat.
“I just don’t think it was our best effort. It starts with me just throughout the week. We didn’t have a great practice every day,” Jones said. “Starting with me, the energy was kind of low, maybe like feeling a little sorry for ourselves because we’re coming off the bye and stuff. Not to get into details, but we just didn’t practice well, and that just reflects how we played.”
The lack of attention to detail that led to drive-killing penalties and sloppy offense was inexcusable, but also something unlikely to happen again under Bill Belichick’s watch.
A more reflective reality is that rookie quarterbacks have growing pains. Although it’s easy to forget, Jones is only 14 starts into his NFL career, and we got both ends of the rookie spectrum on Saturday night.
New England’s loss to Indy is a great tape to evaluate the good and bad currently in Mac’s game. The good was that Jones added 0.22 expected points per play if you remove his two interceptions. On the other hand, two giveaways, including one in the red zone, contributed to digging the hole.
Riding the seesaw with Jones and the Pats offense is frustrating at times, but the positive plays greatly outweighed the negative in terms of volume for the Patriots’ quarterback on Saturday night.
After reviewing the coaches tape, we had Jones with 11 positive plays to three negative throws or decisions. According to PFF, the two picks were Mac’s only turnover-worthy plays.
Let’s break it down throw-by-throw to highlight both the positivists and the negatives:
1ST QTR, 3RD-&-2: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO J. MEYERS FOR 10 YARDS
Starting with the first third down, McDaniels began sequencing New England’s levels concept early in the game (it’ll come back later).
Here, Kendrick Bourne (deep dig) and Jakobi Meyers (shallow dig) cross over the middle against a two-high rotating structure. The Colts give Mac a man coverage read pre-snap, but he wisely sees the defender over Bourne in the right slot falling off at the snap into the deep half. When the middle linebacker (Okereke, #58) drops into the deep hole, it leaves a void underneath for Meyers to fill in on the shallow, and Mac sniffs out the rotation and knows where the opening is to move the chains. Good read and process.
1ST QTR, 3RD-&-3: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO J. MEYERS FOR FOUR YARDS
The Colts defense is known for mainly playing zone coverage, especially cover-two, but they played some man coverage against New England on third down as a game-plan wrinkle.
Meyers starts in the backfield and motions into the slot to give Jones a pre-snap coverage indicator on this third down. When the defender follows Meyers into the slot, it tells Mac that it’s man coverage. Mac then works the one-on-one matchup for Meyers on the pivot/return route, and they get just enough to keep the drive alive.
2ND QTR, 1ST-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO K. BOURNE FOR 15 YARDS
Once the Pats got down on the scoreboard, McDaniels began to open up the early-down passing game, and the Pats hit on several big plays.
This time, they motion tight end Jonnu Smith into the backfield, and that gets the Colts to walk a safety down to the line, forming a single-high structure. With the defense in single-high, the Pats ran play-action, and Bourne wins on the crossing pattern from the left slot. Mac does a nice job of subtly moving to his right in the pocket to give himself space to step into the throw and pumps while he moves to hold the underneath coverage, leading to a chunk play.
3RD QTR, 1ST-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO H. HENRY FOR 14 YARDS
Another impressive element to Mac’s game was post-snap coverage manipulation against zone, or holding and even moving defenders with his eyes out of passing lanes.
Mac looks left and loads up in his drop in this play like he’s throwing in that direction. However, he’s coming back to Hunter Henry’s in cut the entire way. The stare to his left gets Colts linebacker Darius Leonard to bite in that direction, moving the underneath zone out of the passing line so Jones can get the pass through to Henry.
3RD QTR, 1ST-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO N. AGHOLOR FOR 10 YARDS
The Patriots gave Jones clear-out concepts at the intermediate level throughout the game to allow him to throw away from underneath or robber help.
Here, the defense appears to be in a match zone where they’re playing vertical releases like it’s man with underneath zone defenders. McDaniels gives Mac double in cuts to his left, and he’s going to throw to whichever receiver isn’t given the inside help. Mac holds Leonard again by staring left in his drop, and Leonard stays inside to leverage the first in cut, so Mac throws the second in cut to Agholor for a first down completion.
3RD QTR, 1ST-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO H. HENRY FOR 11 YARDS
Jones also made quick-game concepts work on straight drop-backs from under center by understanding where the zone-droppers would leave voids in the coverage.
Leonard false steps upfield on this completion, thinking the Pats will run the ball, and Jones beats him with a quick pass to Henry for an easy 11 yards.
4TH QTR, 2ND-&-10: M. JONES TOUCHDOWN PASS TO H. HENRY FOR 12 YARDS
Here’s more post-snap coverage manipulation from Jones on Henry’s first touchdown catch.
The Colts are in a cover-six scheme or quarter-quarter-half from the high red zone. N’Keal Harry’s vertical route at the top of the screen occupies the half-field defender, leaving Henry essentially one-on-one with the middle-quarter safety. However, the underneath coverage is in the passing lane. As Jones climbs to evade the rush, he looks off the underneath coverage and no-looks the pass to Henry as the Pats’ tight end runs open on the other side of the deep safety.
4TH QTR, 3RD-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO B. BOLDEN FOR 12 YARDS
One more example of Mac understanding what the defense is throwing at him and his answer to an all-out zone pressure by Colts DC Matt Eberflus.
Typically, zero blitzes are man coverage. But the zone-heavy Colts will run all-out pressure with a five-man zone structure behind it that plays out like cover-three. Mac recognizes that he has two-on-two at the top of the screen, with Harry setting a natural pick on the zone-dropper closest to Bolden with just two underneath zone defenders. Harry provides the traffic, Mac gets it into Bolden’s hands, and a pass behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-long converts.
4TH QTR, 2ND-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO N. HARRY FOR NINE YARDS
Who doesn’t love a good example of getting to the backside dig in a full-field progression?
Here, the Pats ran a sail concept to Mac’s left, thinking they could hit the corner route to Henry against a two-high coverage. When the middle linebacker carries Henry vertical and the outside corner squats in a trap position, Jones comes off Henry and gets to the backside read. Meyers’ vertical runs the deep safety up the field, and Harry fills the void as the backside dig.
4TH QTR, 1ST-&-10: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO K. BOURNE FOR 20 YARDS
The Patriots go back to the levels concept again here, and this time it’s the deep dig that is open.
As we roll it, Okereke (deep hole) latches on to Meyers’ shallow dig, probably due to Mac throwing to Jakobi the first time. Jones puts enough air under the ball to get it over Kenny Moore’s shallow zone and drops it in front of the deep safety for the drive-starter to Bourne.
4TH QTR, 3RD-&-6: M. JONES PASS COMPLETE TO N. HARRY FOR 43 YARDS
A few plays later, the Patriots came back to the levels concept for a huge play a third time.
After hitting Meyers and Bourne on the dig patterns, the defense is all over them now. Okereke (MLB) jumps Meyers, the half-field safety jumps Bourne, leaving Harry one-on-one on the backside for the deep ball, and they hit it perfectly.
We get on McDaniels constantly for his sometimes head-scratching situational play-calling, but that’s excellent sequencing to scheme up three productive plays off the same concept.
4TH QTR, 3RD-&-7: M. JONES TOUCHDOWN PASS TO H. HENRY FOR SEVEN YARDS
A final tight-window zone throw to Henry. Ironically, the Patriots passed up on fourth-and-goal from the seven for a field goal, then converted a similar scenario on the next drive.
This is some kind of combo coverage from Eberflus, who gets a little wonky in the red zone. Nevertheless, the left side (from the offenses’ perspective) is in zone, and Henry sits down in the void to present Mac with a target. The quick-release and ball placement stand out here. Mac doesn’t allow Leonard to get a feel for his intentions by going with the shorter throwing motion and puts it as far away from the defender as possible while still making it catchable.
As we get into the negatives, we cut out Darius Leonard’s interception because it was straightforward: Mac thought he looked Leonard off, but Leonard changed directions instantly.
3RD QTR, 3RD-&-1: M. JONES INTERSECTED BY B. OKEREKE INTENDED FOR B. BOLDEN
With that said, the second interception to Bolden really irked me for several reasons.
First, and I plan to ask McDaniels this, if Mac doesn’t have the freedom to check into a run on third-and-one when he gets this box in Week 15, what are we doing? He’s fully capable of making this check, and it cost them in a big way. I could’ve ran for a first down here.
Second, this is a bad, bad read by Jones and a late throw into the flat that he’s lucky wasn’t a pick-six. On the read, the Pats are running mesh crossers against one-cross. The deep safety rotates into a robber position to cut the crossing route in one cross. The safety cuts off Henry in this play, leaving Meyers with leverage on the crosser going from left to right. The ball should go to Meyers, who is open, and likely moves the chains on third down. Mac needs to hold on the primary read longer. Instead, he got impatient and made a lazy throw.
The two elements that led to the turnover, not checking to a run and missing Meyers on the read, cannot happen this late in the season, rookie quarterback or not.
3RD QTR, 4TH-&-1: M. JONES INCOMPLETE PASS TO N. AGHOLOR
Another play that made me want to pull my hair out with blame going to McDaniels and Mac.
First, how many times are the Patriots going to run this sprint right/pick play in short-yardage? It’s all over the tape, and the Colts were all over it. Henry could’ve looked for the ball sooner, and it’s usually Meyers in that spot, which might’ve put Henry in a position he hasn’t practiced much or been one tendency breaker that McDaniels was hoping would fool Indy. It didn’t.
Second, unlike the Okereke pick, Mac needs to come off the primary read faster this time. The Colts play the rub concept perfectly with the defender going over the pick. It’s not there. What is there is Meyers on crossing on the backside with the entire defense flowing to the flat. If Mac comes off Henry faster and gets to his second read (Meyers) after a quick reset, it’s first down.
As Mac said earlier this season, it takes three plays to lose a football game. The Patriots had more than three negative plays: a blocked punt TD, two interceptions, a failed fourth down, multiple drive-killing penalties, offside on a missed field cost them three points, and so on.
However, for Jones and the offense, it was indeed three plays, with the two turnovers and a failed fourth down play that was there to be made, putting them in a 20-zip hole.
The good news is that there was plenty of good to take away from the Pats’ passing performance on Saturday night, and their rookie QB showed some moxie.
Jones made some really bad plays in this one, but he didn’t allow that to shake his confidence.
Although that’s the silver lining, we are at the point in the year where mistakes end your season.